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Pfizer vaccine announcement sparks flurry of misinformation: a huge day for science dubbed 90% effective

Pfizer’s announcement today that early analysis of its coronavirus vaccine trial with German firm BioNTech showed positive results prompted a flurry of misleading claims about the timing and nature of the vaccine. Pfizer says it is 90% effective. The vaccine is supposed to prevent future infections by using anti-bodies.

  • Vaccine candidate was found to be more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 in participants without evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection in the first interim efficacy analysis
  • Analysis evaluated 94 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in trial participants
  • Study enrolled 43,538 participants, with 42% having diverse backgrounds, and no serious safety concerns have been observed; Safety and additional efficacy data continue to be collected
  • Submission for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) planned for soon after the required safety milestone is achieved, which is currently expected to occur in the third week of November
  • Clinical trial to continue through to final analysis at 164 confirmed cases in order to collect further data and characterize the vaccine candidate’s performance against other study endpoints

High-profile accounts such as the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. suggested that the pharmaceutical giant’s announcement was linked to Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election. “The timing of this is pretty amazing,” he wrote on Twitter, adding: ”Nothing nefarious about the timing of this at all right?” in a post that received more than 11,200 retweets. Others from pro-Trump quarters, including Republican congressional candidate Errol Webber, who lost to Democrat Karen Bass on November 3, tweeted, “How much do you want to be [sic] Pfizer intentionally didn’t announce before the election just to not give Trump the W?” in a post that attracted 1,700 interactions, including nearly 600 shares. British businessman and anti-lockdown campaigner Simon Dolan added to this narrative by pointing to the type of vaccine itself: “90% protection. No safety concerns reported. Completely experimental approach. Must be a miracle. And just a couple of days after the US election…..” in a post that received 3,400 interactions. 

Pfizer’s vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA) to inject part of the virus’s genetic code in order to train the immune system. This novel and experimental approach has fueled conspiracy theories online, including the false claim that such injections “alter your DNA.” Skepticism around a potential vaccine for Covid-19 is reportedly an area of concern in many countries, fueled by a highly engaged and organized online anti-vaccine movement, which may now be exacerbated by the spread of misinformation surrounding the US election.

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